December 2005 ~~~~ Editor:  Cliff Hanger ~~~~ 

History of the Railroad Police  The Early Years

The openings of the first railroads in Maryland and North Carolina marked the real beginning of the railroad era in America.   Only a few of the early companies survived for any considerable length of time. 

By the year 1853, more than 200 railway charters had been granted in 11 states.   By that year, more than 1,000 miles of railroad had been opened for operation in the states along the Eastern Shore, as well as in Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. 

Not much is known about how freight, employees and railroad property were protected during those early years;  most situations were probably handled by government authorities, but even then some railroad employee must have had security responsibilities.

By 1850 there were more than 9,000 miles of railroad on the eastern side of the Mississippi River.  Then, in 1851, railroad construction west of the Mississippi irrupted at an almost inconceivable rate.  By 1860 there were 30,626 miles of railroad in the country -- more than three times the mileage than existed just 10 years before. 

With the discovery of gold in Colorado, Nevada and California, the western movement began. Boomtowns sprang up along the railroads with settlers,
speculators, adventure seekers, and drifters following the path west.  As the Gold Rush intensified, a mining frontier was created.

The only enforcer of the law in the Territories was the U.S. Army.   Since "policing" was not the army's specialty, vigilance committees were organized to maintain law and order, and they had their hands full.   As the Civil War raged in the East, Indian warfare broke out in the West.

By the very nature of their physical construction, railroads became the prime prey of many well-organized bands of outlaws.   Theft was rampant and the losses in dollars of freight, parcels and luggage were overwhelming to the railroad companies.   Bridges, tunnels, stations, tracks and railroad cars were dynamited in daring holdups.   Following the Civil War, thousands of unemployed soldiers/hobos took to the rail yards and to the rails to loot and rob.

The westward expanding railroads established business agents, who managed agencies, and who were responsible for handling the company's business from remote locations along the line. 

Settlements often developed around these agencies, and civilization and crime tended to follow.   There was little organized or effective law enforcement on the western frontier, and U.S. Marshals were few and widely scattered.   Railway companies, left to protect themselves, contracted railroad policemen.

The title, "detective" was commonly used in the East. Because the responsibility of the railroad policeman was to protect the agency and the agent, the western railroads entitled their policemen, "Special Agents".   This title persevered throughout the years, and has been adopted by most federal agencies today.   Two of the most famous Special Agents hired to protect the railroads were Bat Masterson and Allen Pinkerton. 

Alan Pinkerton 
Two of the more famous outlaw gangs who preyed upon the railroads were the Hole in the Wall Gang, and the Wild Bunch. 

Some of the most famous outlaws of the Old West were members of these groups.  They include Harry Logan, aka Kid Curry; Ben Kilpatrick,  aka Tall Texan; Robert Leroy Parker,  aka Butch Cassidy; and Harry Longbaugh, aka The Sundance Kid. Jessie and Frank James of the James Gang were also very active. 

Dalton Gang
There were lesser-known bandits too, such as Sam Bass, the Collins Gang and Parlor Car Bill Carlisle. 

The nature of the times called for prompt and vigorous action. If a railroad policeman could hold his own in a fight, and was accurate with a gun, he was considered an asset to the company. This was an era of smoking six-shooters. The Special Agents use of diplomacy and investigative intelligence was secondary to his ability to handle himself in physical confrontations with those who preyed upon the railroad.

The hiring of individuals was done with little regard for their background, thus many thugs and undesirable characters became Railroad Police Officers.

It was the general custom to simply hand a newly appointed officer a badge and send him out to work without further instruction in the law or how it was to be enforced.  The manner in which he did his job was largely up to him.  This method of selecting agents, and the lack of training and discipline, tainted this branch of railroad service, and resulted in a poor reputation for railroad police in communities along the rails. 

Additionally, the contracting of detective agencies, such as the Pinkertons, who employed experienced professional 

Baldwin-Felts Detectives
policemen and investigators, also caused some problems.  In the eyes of the railroad employees, these men were "outsiders," a situation that led to poor cooperation and an atmosphere of distrust.

Overall, both in the United States and Canada, the early days of railroad policing were beset by confusion and distrust. Those were pioneer days. 

Along with the many other problems encountered by railroad police was the fact that they had no authority off railroad property, unless they were able to gain an appointment as a deputy or special policeman.

On February 27, 1865, the legislature of Pennsylvania enacted the Railroad Police Act -- the first act officially establishing railroad police. The act authorized the governor of the state to appoint railroad police officers, and gave statewide authority to these officers. This act provided the model legislation for the other states to follow.

The Mid Twentieth Century
In the early and mid-1940's, during and immediately following 
World War II -- the hey-day of railroading in North America, there were approximately 9,000 railroad police officers in the U.S. and Canada.   These agents represented as many as 400 individual railroads with about 225,000 miles of mainline track. Property protection had always been a focus of railroad police, but by the mid-1940's passenger ridership was in the millions annually.

Railroad Policing Today
As our society has changed, so have the nation's railroads, and so has railroad police service.   Railroad policing has developed into a unique, highly specialized branch of policing. 

With the development of the interstate highway system in the 1950's, rail passenger ridership diminished.   Federal deregulation of American railroads in 1980, and the resulting mergers and acquisitions resulted in fewer and larger railway companies.  A trend that continues today. 

Corporate streamlining has resulted in more efficient rail operations, which has led to the downsizing of the employee populations of railway companies, thus the reducing the number of railroad police officers.

These agents represented as many as 400 individual railroads with about 225,000 miles of mainline track. Property protection had always been a focus of railroad police, but by the mid-1940's passenger ridership was in the millions annually.

Engineering has also been a powerful contributor to the downsizing of the nation's rail police forces.   For example, smaller, more powerful locomotives pull trains over tracks of continuous welded rail; Trains make fewer stops and travel at higher speeds;  High value freight is fully enclosed in specially designed railcars; Rail Police use modern technology to better secure and protect freight in transit.   As a result, today there are fewer than 2,300 railway police officers in North America.

In Canada, federal and provincial law regulates railroad police. In the United States, the appointment, commissioning and regulation of rail police is primarily a state mandate.  Section 1704 of the Crime Control Act of 1990, effective March 14, 1994, provides that: "A railroad police officer who is certified or commissioned as a police officer under the laws of any state shall, in accordance with the regulations issued by the Secretary of Transportation, be authorized to enforce the laws of any jurisdiction in which the rail carrier owns property."

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